CHARLES TAYLOR KERCHNER
FROM THE JESTER IN THE COURT of Henry VIII to Robin Williams in a night-club, entertainers have turned situational spontaneity into an art form. Reacting to a simple prop or a line hurled from the audience creates exciting cabaret. Improvisation also makes exciting school politics, and it is currently continuing a long-running engagement in Los Angeles, site of the nation's second-largest school system. Improvisation has been turned from simple situational responsiveness to a decades-long series of events that raised interest group and due-process accountability to high consciousness. However, improvisation does not produce durable institutional reform or create a system of schools capable of sustainable improvement. Although improvisation as a managerial form is recognizable to any seasoned school administrator and to students of policy familiar with “muddling through” or “street-level bureaucrat” concepts of leadership, it is at best an incomplete solution. In this chapter we follow the course of improvisational politics in Los Angeles over two decades, note its accomplishments and failings, and in the conclusion point to important amendments in political and institutional theory suggested by this case history.
Nominally and officially, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is a monument to Progressive Era rational design. Driven by the politics of water, the city annexed its suburbs and the school district took on a similar configuration: 54 miles long with a mountain range in the middle. Its 711,187 students attend 663 schools. It employs about 35,000 teachers and has a total staff of over 75,000. Its operation and governance are separate from the surrounding municipal government and the five-person